1 February 2021

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle rouge | The Red Circle (1970)

Old photos play a part in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle rouge. Take the photos Corey (Alain Delon) has of his former girlfriend. Initially Corey intended to leave the photos behind on the prison desk as he departs with his possessions, although a guard gives the photos back to him. Which in fact is a good thing as it happens, as Corey can leave them in the empty safe of his former boss Rico (André Ekyan): as Corey takes the now slightly less rich Rico's money the photographic symbolism is telling: Corey's just exchanged one thing for another. We'll later see a final view of her when Corey re-visits the cobwebbed flat he's not seen since he was sent to prison, and he throws the photo of her in the bin. The girl remains nameless and about the only sight we see of her is her naked body in the bedroom of Rico's flat. Later, we'll see a very different angle on the memories of a couple, when there's a brief shot of a framed photo of the presumably dead wife of the cop Mattei (André Bourvil) on his desk at home; Mattei also shows the reluctant grass Santi (François Périer) a photo of Santi and Vogel together, proving that they do know each other. Significantly, close to the spot where Corey is to meet his future friend in crime Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), we get a full shot of the huge wall at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes near Chalon-sur-Saône, which annouces where Nicéphore Niépce invented photography in 1822.

Just released from prison in Marseille, Corey collects money from Rico and buys a second-hand car – an American model, of course  and picks up an anauthorised traveller in this boot in Bourgogne, Vogel, who's just jumped from the train to Paris where he has escaped from the handcuffs Mattei tied him to in the sleeping compartment. The main thing is that this coincidence  two crooks by chance in the same car  brings them together.

Before buying the car Corey initially plays billiards by himself to while the time away until the showroom opens, his chalking of the cue tip designing a red circle, and the title of the film alludes to a quotation by Rama Krishna shown at the beginning of the film, about people being drawn together in this circle, even if they come from different paths, even if they have different aims. The third member of the 'circle' is to be Jansen (Yves Montand), a retired élite cop now suffering from the DTs: no one is innocent, as Mattei's boss repeatedly says.

The climax of the story is in a very long, almost silent, psychologically gripping heist in which the extraordinary skills of the three crooks are tested to their utmost when they rob a high-class jewellery store: Jansen has overcome his alcoholism, is making high-spec bullets from moulds, has even practiced his rifle accuracy to open an electronic door, and when the job is accomplished he feels redeemed, he isn't even interested in his cut. The absurdity of the situation  that the jewellery robbery of the century means that no receiver will touch such highly expensive booty is of no importance: it's the psychology, the craftsmanship, that matters.

This is néo-noir, this is about fatality, and everyone knows that the three robbers will be brought dead together in a pool of blood, much like the red circle that brought them together. For that matter, just as photos bring people together, even if they're separated from each other. A superb film.

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